When I try to remember when J was a newborn, there is only one moment that comes to mind.
I am four years old and standing outside your and Mom’s bedroom door. Mom is crying. To this day I can hear her cries in my head. The pain in them is astounding. Deep, deep pain only a mother can produce.
The door is cracked. I can just make out your silhouettes in the dim light. You’re both standing over an incubator. It looks like a glass house, a dome enshrining my newborn baby brother.
I didn’t understand why J had to stay in there all the time. Mom took him out to feed him and then put him back. I’d asked for an older brother and gotten a younger one that I couldn’t touch and couldn’t play with.
And then the memory ends. That’s all I have of it. The next thing I remember is J being okay and us being inseparable. (Mom later explained to me that he was suffering from severe jaundice. I’d always assumed he was born premature.)
He was the sweetest baby, Dad. Beautiful, thick brown hair that fell in waves. Chubby cheeks. His voice was high and cherub-like. He was beloved by everyone. The sweet baby boy who looked just like his father.
I loved him from the start. Not the kind of love that one has to try for, but an instantaneous love. One of the photos in our family albums from this time is of J and me on a scooter that sits low to the ground. Our legs hang over the sides, feet on the carpet. We’re twisting up to grin at the camera right before we tear off down the hall on a great adventure.
And yet there was always something fragile about J to me. Maybe it’s rooted in that first memory, his tiny body curled up inside that dome. Even when he was little, I was filled with a protectiveness over him I couldn’t explain.
When he was old enough to talk, he learned my name. “Ash” is a hard combination of letters to pronounce, so for a long time I was known as “Ass-ley.” Ass-ley his sister. Ass-ley Mom’s daughter. Ass-ley Dad’s daughter.
It was only later that he learned I didn’t have the same last name as the rest of you. By then he was old enough to sense my weaknesses, and he teased me unmercifully with this knowledge, as siblings will do. I’m sure I got him back a time or two, as siblings will do. We fought like cats and dogs, one minute scratching each others’ eyes out and the next cuddled on the couch with bowls in our laps, ice cream dripping down our chins as Rescue Rangers blared from the television.
When I was nine and J was five, we lived in a small house in a cul-de-sac in San Diego. Every house on the street had kids in it, and we spent every moment not devoted to school or homework outside together, traipsing through each others’ yards, chasing down the ice-cream man, piling our bikes on the sidewalk.
The house at the center of the cul-de-sac was owned by a reclusive family. Their children were home-schooled and only played with the rest of us once, maybe twice, a year. I know it had something to do with religion, Dad, but I don’t know which. Kids don’t take note of that kind of thing. We only noticed that they never played with us. That’s all that mattered.
One day the middle child, Levi, got very sick. The family didn’t believe in doctors, so they’d prayed at his bedside that God would save the boy. He died a few days later.
The next day, J and I got into an argument in our front yard. We were standing on the edge of the driveway. A few neighborhood kids hovered behind us, waiting for us to finish so we could get on with whatever game was occupying our time. None of us paid any attention to the van backing out of the driveway at the center of the cul-de-sac.
J pushed me away and yelled, “No, Ash! I hate you! I wish I’d never been born!” He darted out into the road just as the van sped down the road.
My breath caught in my throat. I leapt into the road to grab him at the same moment he dashed back to the driveway. We smashed into one another as the van tore past, the family staring out the big front window, their faces still and empty.
Draped over the mother’s lap was Levi’s body. I saw him there as I looked up, in that infinitesimal moment before J and I moved out of the van’s path.
J pushed me away once the van was gone. “God, Ash!” his little voice yelled. “I could’ve been really hurt!”
He was scared. I could see it on his face, etched in his big brown eyes. He wasn’t really going to do it, and I’d gotten in his way. J didn’t need me to save him.
He stalked inside, leaving me standing there, heart thumping wildly, the image of Levi’s body playing over and over inside my head.
I went inside and hugged him tight, even when he struggled against me, because he was almost that boy that day, draped across my lap in the road. Instead he was my beloved baby brother still, survivor of the glass dome from the bedroom, keeper of the beautiful brown curls and sweet voice. The boy who looked just like his father.
Even now I want to protect him from things, now that he’s 26 and has lived on his own for ages. I want to shield him from the hurt in the world, hurt that has found him in so many, many ways over his lifetime.
You and J grew very close as he aged, and J and I grew apart. He still calls me now and again, when he needs advice. Each time he does I’m transported back to my first memory of him, to that incubator. The light falling over his delicate skin, the eye mask fastened over his tiny newborn head.
He’ll always be that boy to me. The boy who needs me and doesn’t need me at the same time. The boy who carries on your name in ways I’ll never be able to. The boy who had everyone’s love from the start, because he was the keeper of the beautiful brown curls and sweet voice. Because he is the boy who looks and acts and thinks just like his father.